Changes to taxpayer-funded travel allowances eroding accountability, former politician says
The Gunner Government says it will not change the reporting requirements around travel allowance. (ABC News: James Purtill)
Northern Territory politicians are no longer required to publicly report their taxpayer-funded travel, after changes to their allowances were quietly brought into effect earlier this year.
- Politicians no longer required to explain taxpayer benefits of travel
- Money used to pay MLAs’ airport parking and lounge membership fees
- Taxpayers charged for jaunts to theme parks, space camp
In exchange for having their travel allowance cut from $15,000 per year to $10,000, MLAs no longer need approval for trips or to report the actual costs to parliament.
The changes were introduced in an effort to cut down on costs, but critics argue altering accountability requirements has eroded transparency around politicians’ travel.
The previous rules required all Members of the Legislative Assembly to report their travel to parliament and explain what benefit taxpayers received for the trips.
That requirement was scrapped as of January 1.
Charles Darwin University law lecturer and former Labor MLA, Ken Parish, said scrapping the reporting requirement was another “black mark” against the Gunner Labor Government and their pledge to restore transparency to government.
“They are spending NT taxpayers’ money,” Mr Parish told ABC Radio Darwin.
“To the best of my knowledge, no other Territory workers get a $10,000 annual allowance to travel wherever they like whenever they like, without the knowledge or agreement of their employer — in this case, NT taxpayers.”
The 2017 Remuneration Tribunal Determination recommended that MLA travel allowances be trimmed from $15,000 a year to $10,000.
But the independent body also recommended rolling that cash into the general electorate allowance, meaning an MLA could use money earmarked to run events and service their constituents to take overseas or interstate trips with no explanation or approval needed.
Allowances this year range from $60,500 to $116,000, depending on the remoteness of the electorate.
That money will now also be used to pay MLAs’ airport parking and lounge membership fees.
The rule changes saw all “professional development” entitlements rolled into the electorate allowance as well, where it, too, does not have to be reported to parliament.
The ABC understands the travel entitlement cash could be rolled over, year-over-year, or used for other purposes.
Taxpayers footing jaunts to theme parks, space camp
The only way the expenses would be made public would be through a Freedom of Information request or at Estimates Hearings, if another MLA requested them.
The Gunner Government was elected on a platform of restoring transparency to government and it routinely publishes the costs of ministerial and government travel in press releases.
But individual members’ travel reports have vanished from parliament’s tabled papers in recent months.
The previous NT Parliament was heavily criticised for taking lavish and frivolous trips at taxpayer expense.
Former CLP MLA John Elferink took his family on a $45,000 trip to New York City at Christmas, including jaunts around the US to theme parks and a space camp.
The luxurious Marina Bay Sands in Singapore was the destination for former MLA Peter Chandler that included spa treatments.
Matt Conlan, another former NT politician, charged taxpayers $36,000 for a trip to Los Angeles to study the effects of reality television on Americans’ travel habits.
The 25-seat Territory Parliament cost taxpayers $217,000 for private member travel in 2015 alone.
In its report to Parliament, the Remuneration Tribunal stated that the changes to travel expenses were made because “in some instances the travel may not, in part, have met the purposes for which it was intended”.
Mr Parish said the changes were a “black mark” against the Gunner Government. (ABC News: Bridget Judd)
Instead, the RTD recommended abolishing the travel allowance and putting the money into all MLAs’ electorate allowances so they could “undertake travel … at their discretion”.
Remuneration Tribunal chair and former NT under-treasurer Michael Martin declined an interview to explain why the tribunal scrapped parliamentary reporting requirements.
Mr Parish said that while some MLA travel was essential, the changes had resulted in less transparency, not increased accountability.
“This is presented as toughening up on MLA travel, but in fact it is almost exactly the opposite,” he said.
“This is yet another black mark against the Gunner Government on accountability and transparency.
“With the exception of the imminent start of the NT [Independent Commission Against Corruption], this Government’s record on transparency and accountability to Territorians is poor.”
A spokesman for Chief Minister Michael Gunner said the changes to the reporting requirements were recommended by the independent Remuneration Tribunal and would not be changed.
“The Government supports the independence of that tribunal and has subsequently passed legislation disallowing the parliament to overturn decisions of the tribunal to bolster that independence,” he said.